Obama: The Great American Hope?

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

There is great hope that President-elect Obama will change the course of U.S. foreign policy, create far greater goodwill toward America, and thereby ease world tensions. Such optimism is not based on former Sen. Obama’s foreign-policy experience. In essence, he has none.

Nor does improvement hinge on Obama’s past career in Chicago politics or his U.S. Senate tenure — the former was problematic at best, the latter cursory.

Instead, our great expectations derive from four rosy, but heretofore unquestioned assumptions:

1) Most of the current Bush policies are not merely wrong, but inflammatory:ipsis factis being against them is wise and will bring dividends overseas;

2) Obama’s singular eloquence, youth, charisma, and “presence” will win over the world in the manner it swept the American electorate, providing a welcome change from the “smoke ’em out” Texas global turn-off of the past;

3) Obama’s exotic name, his multiracial background, the Muslim faith of his father, and his dalliance with hard-left politics as a student and community-organizer will all coalesce to sort of “flip” the image (if not the reality) of the U.S., as the world’s superpower transmogrifies from an oppressive to a sympathetic international player;

4) The reemergence of Clintonites such as Hillary, Emanuel, Panetta, Podesta, Susan Rice, and others will bring back successful advocates of “soft power,” “multilateralism,” and “engagement,” who reflect Obama’s worldview, but bring a gritty realism to the implementation of an often heretofore utopian rhetoric.

Let us for the sake of the country hope that such expectations prove absolutely true. But until they do, I worry that there are problems with all four assumptions. First, as we have seen, Bush’s policy during 2004–8 was very different from the now ossified acrimony over the removal of Saddam Hussein of autumn 2002–spring 2003 — when Villepin, Chirac, Schröder, Arafat, etc. took turns on the world media stage delivering boilerplate invective of “hyperpower” and “The German Way.”

But since then, governments in France, Germany, Italy, and much of Eastern Europe have proven as pro-American as they could be given the realities of E.U. culture. It is hard to see many Obama alternatives to the EU3/multilateral Bush approaches to preventing nuclear proliferation in Iran. Few have any new ideas about improving existing relatively good relations with China and India, given the liberal trade and outsourcing policies of the Bush administration. Russia is, well, Russia — an authoritarian petrol state that demands visible signs of American goodwill even as it interprets them when given as weakness.

Senate Democrats seem to be aping Bush’s Middle East policies; their only difference on Iraq now is a weird sort of revisionism in which a Harry Reid’s once serial declamations about the war being lost and a surge as lunatic are now reformulated as invaluable criticism that alone forced Bush to adopt the necessary Democratic changes that saved Iraq.

Obama himself on matters as diverse as the Patriot Act, FISA, NAFTA, Iran, Iraq, missile defense, and the surge seems to have gravitated away from his early Moveon.org/ANSWR campaign rhetoric to positions almost indistinguishable from those of the present Bush administration — as the appointments of centrists like Bush veteran Robert Gates at Defense and Gen. Jones as National Security Advisor attest.

Second, Obama’s rhetorical skills will help, especially with world opinion. We’ve already seen the American media re-characterize issues such as preventative detentions, renditions, the treatment of enemy combatants, and Guantánamo from “Bush shredding the Constitution,” to “problematic and complex inherited dilemmas that defy easy solutions, as Obama will tragically learn.”

There is reason to believe that the world likewise — especially the international media, at least for a while — will simply about-face and assume that Obama’s brand on Bush’s policies makes them less objectionable. All that said, it is not clear that the likes of Ahmadinejad, Chavez, Kim Jong Il, Putin, and the rest of the world’s cabal of thugs who are the likely suspects in future crises either care much for what their own people think or care whether Obama’s is young, glib, and vigorous or senile, inarticulate, and decrepit. Instead, they simply have agendas that are not our own: liberal or conservative America is still America, and therefore something to challenge and test rather than cooperate with.

Third, Obama himself has suggested his nontraditional pedigree offers America advantages abroad. And he’s right. In almost Orwellian fashion, we have seen — in the feigned outrage to past references to the tripartite Barrack Hussein Obama — that here at home to emphasize Obama’s Arab/Islamic resonance is taboo, but to emphasize it abroad to win multicultural fides is indeed welcome.

The problem once again, however, is that many of those who may give Obama wide latitude for his apparent more sympathetic American profile will do so for less than welcome reasons. A confounded Iran may find it harder to manufacture mass rallies with Barack Hussein Obama burning in effigy, but won’t cease proliferation on that account. A Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, or Syria that instinctively might seek closer relations with an Obama will do so under the assumption that their, rather than our, agenda, might better prevail — and that poses all sorts of both foreign and domestic problems ahead. If creepy thugs abroad express hope for better relations with Obama or, contrarily, if they feel “betrayed” by his surprising continuance of Bush policies, neither reaction is necessarily welcome.

Fourth, it is true that talented Clintonites who have experience from 1993–2000 will hit the ground running. That said, the world may also remember that during those eight years the United States either could not or would not reply to serial provocations — the World Trade Center Bombing of 1993, the murdering of American soldiers in their Khobar quarters, the attacks on our East African embassies and diplomats, or the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole — ensuring that 9/11 was the logical rather than aberrant denouement.

Risks now seen by terrorists and rogue states as unwise during the cowboyish Bush administration may once again seem worth reconsideration in a manner reminiscent of the Clinton years. Talking of soft power, multilateralism, the U.N., dialogue, and restoring our image abroad are all salutary and resonate well in Europe; but to others more nefarious, such calming assurances may send the opposite message that the U.S. is now predictable — and predictably not going to hit hard back when provoked. Deterrence is earned with difficulty and over many years, but it is easily lost in seconds.

What should we then expect? As some point, perhaps in his first few months in office, President Obama, as Joe Biden predicted, will be tested by the rogue oil-producing states. Most — like Iran, Russia, and Venezuela — will soon be facing bankruptcy if oil prices stay flat, as their only source of foreign exchange largely vanishes. Expect all in multifarious ways to test America, in part to humiliate the United States, but more likely simply to cause enough tension to create panic among speculators and restore their windfall profits. Anyone can dream up scenarios — a move on Georgia, a cutoff of natural gas entirely to Europe, a brazen announcement of an Iranian bomb with a dare to Israel to stop it, a suicide attack on a tanker or warship in the Straits of Hormuz, flagrant violation of the Monroe Doctrine by home porting Russian vessels in Venezuela, simultaneous rocket barrages from Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria, etc. For such countries, any disruption is good in the sense that it creates panic, and panic in turn spikes oil prices.

Expect Pakistani-based terrorists to renew terrorist assaults on India, on the premise that Pakistan enjoys both nuclear exemption and deniability of culpability. In the multilateral world to come, European NATO countries may praise Obama to the skies as they quietly begin to leave Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda remnants in Iraq may think even a tenth of its former suicide attacks could now pay real dividends, on the assumption that once U.S. troops leave Iraq, under no circumstances will they ever come back.
All Americans in bipartisan fashion should hope that Obama will get though successfully the perilous first six months at a time when the U.S. economy is shaky, the Commander-in-chief unproven, and our enemies eager to test our president’s mettle. Yet I suspect that conservatives will more likely than liberals forgive the fact that Obama’s governance at times will come to resemble just what he used to caricature in George W. Bush.

©2009 Tribune Media Services

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